Fiction: “Northanger Abbey” by Jane Austen

northangerWhen October rolled around, it was time to pick my next Fall Classic. And while my pick for the actual Fall Classic fell slightly short of the goal (IT WAS 2015, THE CUBBIES WERE FATED TO GO TO THE WORLD SERIES, MARTY MCFLY SAID IT WAS SO – why no, I’m not over it yet, why do you ask?), my literature Fall Classic was a poor attempt at trying to come full circle with my (admittedly, thanks to hindsight) poor choice for May Classic Literature Month.

Remember, for 2015’s selection, I elected to read The Mysteries of Udolpho. I am still kicking myself for that library choice. I mean, I just tallied up the books I read last year, and I’m two shy of 2014’s total, and I’m sorry, Ann Radcliffe, but I’m putting all that fault on your shoulders. If I wasn’t so busy reading about Lady Emily having hysterics I could have finished — who knows? Five more books? Seven? I could have hit forty, you bitch.


ANYWAY. When October came around, I realized it only made sense that I should read Northanger Abbey — after all, Northanger Abbey is Jane Austen’s open attempt at satirizing Ann Radcliffe’s master work.

Northanger Abbey was one of the first novels Ms. Austen wrote, but it was only published after her death. The heroine is Miss Catherine Morland, a charming yet naive country girl who gets the chance to experience a Bath season. She is introduced to society at the Pump Room (a Thing in Bath – where debutantes paraded around a fountain and gossiped about everyone else) and becomes friends with Isabella Thorpe, who appears to be a great role model of the upper class to which Catherine aspires. Spoiler alert!: she’s not.

Isabella’s kind of a bitch – she becomes fast friends with Catherine because Catherine’s too naive to see through her Regina George-esque facade. Well, she’s like Regina George only if Regina George was a manipulative husband-hunter.

Maybe she’s more like Karen:

“Very well, Catherine. […] I have not forgot your description of Mr. Tilney — ‘a brown skin, with dark eyes, and rather dark hair.’ Well, my taste is different. I prefer light eyes, and as to complexion — do you know — I like a sallow better than any other.” [p. 47]

So she likes sickly men that she can easily overpower; that’s how I’m interpreting that sentence.

Catherine’s afore-mentioned Mr. Tilney is Henry Tilney, a young parson who has accompanied his sister Eleanor to Bath for the season. (I should mention that in Jane Austen-land, a country parson is someone who can still marry and flirt with girls – we’re not talking a Catholic priest or a Jesuit monk, here.) They hit it off quickly, although Isabella’s brother John also develops an attraction to Catherine. Isabella, meanwhile, begins to fall for Catherine’s brother James. The Thorpes’s attraction is derived completely from a falsehood going through Bath that the Morlands are extremely rich, however.

It all sounds pretty sedate, right? Basically it’s what a modern-day take on a historical romance sounds like. Two fast friends find each other becoming nearly related and one of the girls has a secret admirer. It’s all very quaint. But here’s what Jane Austen’s doing – she’s satirizing the whole damn thing.

Northanger Abbey is Jane Austen’s treatise on what should happen to silly little girls who read too many novels. And in creating that treatise, she tried to put in as many “silly little novel” tropes as possible: the Naive Everygirl; the Love Triangle; the Lemony Narrator, even. And then she subverted them, or heightened them to the point of parody.

Catherine, who is such a fierce lover of literature – including The Mysteries of Udolpho, which, true confessions, I almost typed that just now as “The Musteries of Udolpho,” which implies that Udolpho smells really mildew-ey — automatically goes to the Most Dramatic Option when presented with something that could have even the slightest hint of mystery. When she visits with the Tilneys and finds a large wardrobe in her room, she doesn’t assume it’s a guest wardrobe; she believes she’s going to find something ghastly and suspenseful inside. She gets herself so worked up that when she finds a key in a keyhole and turns it to open it, she actually locks it on herself, and then takes about five minutes before she tries turning it the other way. And when she finally peers inside the drawer, what does she see? Not the desiccated hand of a long-lost Tilney ancestor, but an actual, honest-to-God laundry list. It is a list of laundry items.

That might not seem very funny to us as a modern-day reader; but to someone of Ms. Austen’s time, when The Mysteries of Udolpho and its ilk were the height of literature and there was nothing funny about them, the tricks Ms. Austen pulls on the reader becomes that much sharper and cleaner. General Tilney is oppressive and taciturn – maybe he’s a robber baron like Count Montoni! Oh no wait, he’s just a snob, who also heard the lie about the Morlands being rich. Wait, where does General Tilney go during the day – up to his dead wife’s room? Maybe she’s still alive! So then Catherine goes sneaking around to try and find a maybe-not-so-dead wife, only to be discovered in the act by Henry. But instead of cutting her out of his life for her crazy ideas – because General Tilney actually loved his wife and is still mourning the loss of her, that’s where he’s going, he’s leaving you for some goddamned peace and quiet, Miss Morland! (sorry) – instead, Henry gently mocks her and her propensity to turn the Drama Dial on everything up to 11. In Udolpho, Lady Emily cuts Vaillancourt out of her life when she hears about his gambling without giving him a chance to explain himself. Here, Henry actually listens to Catherine and finds her overactive imagination charming.

Ms. Austen, in her role as narrator, also takes stabs at the fact that Udolpho and its contemporaries are overly long. For instance, our introduction to Isabella Thorpe’s mother:

Mrs. Thorpe was a widow, and not a very rich one; she was a good-humored, well-meaning woman, and a very indulgent mother. Her eldest daughter had great personal beauty, and the younger ones, by pretending to be as handsome as their sister, imitating her air, and dressing in the same style, did very well.

This brief account of the family is intended to supersede the necessity of a long and minute detail from Mrs. Thorpe herself, of her past adventures and sufferings, which might otherwise be expected to occupy the three or four following chapters; in which the worthlessness of lords and attornies might be set forth, and conversations, which had passed twenty years before, be minutely repeated. [40]

Dear Mrs. Radcliffe: can I get you some ice for that BURN? (But it’s true, it’s totally, one million percent true.)

Finally, because this is Alaina’s blog called That’s What She Read, and I am the most twelve, you can only imagine how hard I laughed while I read this otherwise-innocuous paragraph about John Thorpe’s curricle:

“What do you think of my gig, Miss Morland? A neat one, is it not? Well hung; town built; I have not had it a month. It was built for a Christchurch man, a friend of mine, a very good sort of fellow; he ran it a few weeks, till, I believe, it was convenient to have done with it.” [p. 51]

The first time I read Northanger Abbey, I didn’t have the background of The Mysteries of Udolpho. I’m not sure I even knew it was a real book, to be honest. But now that I’ve read both, knowing Udolpho definitely strengthens Northanger Abbey for me. It’s funnier, smarter – knowing the past heightens the present.

That’s not to say that The Mysteries of Udolpho is a piece of shit that should be mocked; just because I didn’t like it and my opinion of the book closely paired with Miss Austen’s opinion of the book which in turn made me enjoy Northanger Abbey more doesn’t mean that someone else might have the opposite opinion. (Right? Right.) After all, I read new books for the adventure – I won’t really know if I’ll like it until I try. And even when I don’t have a favorable opinion of a book after reading it, the pleasure of reading is always present.

And on that note, I’ll leave you with this conversation between Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney:

“But you never read novels, I dare say?”

“Why not?”

“Because they are not clever enough for you — gentlemen read better books.”

“The person, be it a gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” [p. 107]

Well said, Mr. Tilney; well said.

Grade for Northanger Abbey: 4 stars

Fiction: “The Mysteries of Udolpho” by Ann Radcliffe

mysteries of udolphoA few months ago, my friend Erica read Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. I had read it a few years ago, and it was getting time to make my selection for Spring Classic Literature Month. Well, I was perusing the shelves of the Yarmouth Library after returning Babayaga, and came across The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe. This book was actually mentioned by the characters in Northanger Abbey numerous times, as it is the favorite novel of the lead character Catherine. And Northanger Abbey was in the back of my mind, and this book was free and I’d never read it before, so … hey! Synergy!

Please feel free to add this title to the list of Bad Decisions Alaina’s Made In Life.

Look, I’ve read a lot of classic literature in my day, but oh man – this was like, 700 pages of nothingThe Mysteries of Udolpho is supposed to be the first Gothic novel, and I kept waiting for some suspense? But after reading Red Dragon or, fuck it, Dracula, this book was a snooze fest.

As evidence, please look at the fact that it took me ten weeks to read this. TEN FUCKING WEEKS.

So the plot, as she is horribly, horribly overwritten: Emily St. Aubert lives with her father in the South of France (I think). After her mother dies, she and her father take a tour of the rest of the south of France as part of their bereavement tour or whatever. On the trip, they meet a chevalier (traveling knight) named Vaillancourt. Emily and Vaillancourt fall in love on, like, page 109, and then Emily’s father dies and Emily gets sent to live with her Aunt, Madame Chernon. Madame Chernon disapproves of Vaillancourt, so she forbids them to be together. Then she relents because she finds out Vaillancourt has wealthy connections. Meanwhile, Madame Chernon is wooed by Count Montoni, who appears to be some suave Italian motherfucker. Well, Madame Chernon agrees to marry Count Montoni, does so by stealing the wedding plans of Emily and Vaillancourt, then forbids Emily from continuing her relationship with Vaillancourt. Count Montoni then removes his new wife and Emily to his palace in Venice, where we come to learn that Montoni? is actually a dick.

He’s a leader of the dreaded Italian Bandits, which would make a great name for a rock band. But really, he’s a thief and a murderer. He attempts to sell Emily’s hand in marriage to a Count Morano, but when that deal goes belly-up, he takes the entire “family” up to his palace in the region known as Udolpho.

The Udolpho palace is full of secrets – it’s like Gretchen Weiners’ hair. Emily and her chambermaid, Annette, get into all sorts of adventures. And when I say “adventures,” I mean “forty pages of Annette rambling and Emily saying she doesn’t want to hear it but then says okay sure, I’ll listen, and then they walk through the halls of the castle and see weird shit which will all be explained as not paranormal whatsoever in about five hundred pages.”

While they are imprisoned in Udolpho, Madame Chernon passes away – oh, shit, spoiler alert, I guess – and then Montoni pressures Emily into giving up the land she inherited from her aunt. But Emily refuses, because she’s moral or whatever. Anyway, one night she thinks she hears the voice of her beloved Vaillancourt, but it turns out that it’s another dude from her region of France, who has been imprisoned by Montoni. Not too much later from that, Emily, her maid Annettte, this other dude, and Annette’s boyfriend Ludovico escape from Udolpho and end up at the mansion of a friend named … George, I guess. (I’m wrong, but it’s an easy name to make up and the book’s been back at the library for a month now and I’m not going to look it up.) George had apparently run into Vaillancourt in Paris, and Emily’s boyfriend had managed to turn into a bit of a gambler, so George tells her to cut him loose because he’s a bad egg. When Vaillancourt returns to plead his case, she refuses him.

But after another hundred pages of back and forth, Emily realizes that Vaillancourt was only gambling to make money to help pay off her debts to her servants and other shit, so his morality is restored and they end up married or whatever.

See?  It took me not even 1000 words to give the major points of the plot. Why was this book nearly 700 pages long?

Well, it would have been shorter if Mrs. Radcliffe knew how to use the comma properly.

No, for reals. And while I recognize that this was written nearly three hundred years ago and common grammatical structure has evolved, THERE ARE ENTIRELY TOO MANY COMMAS IN THIS BOOK.

I decided to turn it into a game after I read this sentence:

The immense pine-forests, which, at that period, overhung these mountains, and between which the road wound, excluded all view but of the cliffs aspiring above, except, that, now and then, an opening through the dark woods allowed the eye a momentary glimpse of the country below. [p. 224]

I MEAN. So, as I continued to read – because I don’t give up on books, not anymore – I decided to see if I could find the sentence in the novel that had the most commas.


Beneath the dark and spreading branches, appeared, to the north, and to the east, the woody Apennines, rising in majestic amphitheatre, not black with pines, as she had been accustomed to see them, but their loftiest summits crowned with antient forests of chesnut, oak, and oriental plane, now animated with the rich tints of autumn, and which swept downward to the valley uninterruptedly, except where some bold rocky promontory looked out from among the foliage, and caught the passing gleam. [p. 413]

That is one entire sentence, folks. It has 14 – FOURTEEN – commas in that one sentence. That’s … entirely too many commas.

Let’s see, what else can I talk about – oh, how about how Annette the Maid is so annoying, even the saintly main character Emily hates her? Okay, maybe “hates” is a strong word, but she does delight in poking fun at Annette who is too stupid to realize it.

“Down this passage, ma’amselle ; this leads to a back stair-case. O! if I see any thing, I shall be frightened out of my wits!”

“That will scarcely be possible,” said Emily … [p. 232]

“But the story went round, and many strange reports were spread, so very strange, ma’amselle, that I shall not tell them.”

“That is stranger still, Annette,” said Emily … [p. 238]

Another thing I love about reading old books? What was probably very tame and normal back then sounds really dirty now.

Madame La Comtesse had often deep play at her house, which she affected to restrain, but secretly encouraged … [294]

“I have myself seen the Chevalier engaged in deep play with men, whom I almost shuddered to look upon.” [507]

“Deep play” is defined in the notes as “gambling,” which is such a buzzkill.

Oh, and Ms. Radcliffe attempts to break the novel up by inserting poetry. And if one of those poems have a verse that sounds dirty, well, Alaina’s going to take note of it:

Neptune for this oft binds me fast
To rocks below, with coral chain,
Till all the tempest’s over-past,
And drowning seamen cry in vain. [181]

Overall, the entire book suffers from histrionics which were probably considered the height of literature three hundred years ago, but today reads horribly. I can step back and appreciate it for what it was during its time, but am I ever going to read this again? Hell no.

Grade for The Mysteries of Udolpho: 1 star

(the star is for the That’s What She Said moments the book provided; that’s it.)

Fiction: “The House of Mirth” by Edith Wharton

house of mirthSo after I finished Nickel and Dimed, it was October. And looking back – because that’s the type of idiot I am – I realized that October was typically a month where I would dig out a classic work of literature, for one reason or another (see: Brave New World, which killed two birds with one Banned Book stone; and The Mayor of Casterbridge). I decided – rather capriciously, to be honest – to create another Theme Month. And so, from here and in perpetuity, let October be henceforth known as: The Fall Classic.

(Which is also, apparently, the other name of the World Series. But whatever, right?)

I had purchased The House of Mirth years ago, after watching the Gillian Anderson-starring film adaptation. It has been so long since I’ve watched that movie that I could no longer remember the plot, and since none of the rest of the classics I own inspired me, I decided to read this one. Also, if you don’t like Gillian Anderson, I don’t think we can be friends.

The House of Mirth, first and foremost, is a tragedy. The introduction lets us know up front that this tale will not have a happy ending. Our story takes place after the turn of the last century in New York City’s society, and our tragic heroine is Lily Bart, the orphan of parents who lost their money through reckless spending. When her parents pass away, Lily is sent to live with her maiden aunt in the hope of finding a suitable husband.

For in that day and age, the only acceptable future for a woman of Lily’s pedigree lay in achieving a good, solid marriage. But while Lily wants – nay, requires – the financial stability a marriage would bring, she desires her own independence more.

When we first meet Lily, she is dashing across Grand Central Station to meet up with her longtime friend, Lawrence Seldon. She does have another train to catch that evening, a train that will take her to the country home of her other dear friend, Judy Trenor. But during the layover, she’d love to have Seldon get her up to speed on his Americana collection, in the hopes of using that knowledge to get Mr. Percy Gryce, an incredibly wealthy nerd and another guest of Mrs. Trenor, to propose marriage to her.

This is one example of Lily’s smarts: she knows exactly which avenue to take in order to get men to notice her and her flirting skills are unparalleled. She can easily maneuver among the elite caste of New York society to which she aspires to belong. Sadly, her downfall is her inability to compromise her convictions. Because just when her future with Mr. Gryce is all but secured – all she needs to do is accompany him to church and he will propose to her – she oversleeps. So she decides to wait for him to return to the Trenor house via the country lane, and when she runs into Selden, she decides to take a walk with him rather than wait for Mr. Gryce.

Why doesn’t she marry Seldon, you ask? Well for one, he’s never proposed to her. Secondly, while she does care for him, and he for her, she is well aware of her fiscal shortcomings and doesn’t want to burden him with them. Furthermore, Seldon has stated that when he does marry, he wants it to be for love.

So after this walk with Seldon, she completely loses her chance with Mr. Gryce. Lily borrows the gig and goes to pick up Judy’s husband, Gus, at the train station. During the ride home, Lily alludes to her money troubles, and Gus offers to invest her funds in Wall Street for her. She readily agrees, and in almost no time at all, Gus hands her a check for $9,000.

But then Gus starts cornering Lily at gatherings, and trying to get her alone. Rumors start flying, and Lily tries her best to avoid him. But when she receives a note from Judy, telling her to visit after 10 one night, and when Lily arrives she learns that Gus sent the note and Judy’s not even in town, Gus makes it explicitly clear that he gave her $9,000, that he never invested her money, and now he expects repayment in the form of an affair. Lily stalks out, and her exit is seen by Selden, who puts two and two together and doesn’t go see Lily the next day as he had originally requested.

Lily’s other main foe in her story is Mrs. Bertha Dorset. Mrs. Dorset had had an affair with Lawrence until he broke it off or she got bored. One day, a servant found letters from Mrs. Dorset, sent to Selden, and she sells the letters to Lily. Lily holds on to those letters, partly hoping to use them in order to get a leg up on Mrs. Dorset, but also holds on to them so they don’t get out, as Selden is also involved.

When Selden doesn’t show up, Lily is greeted by another acquaintance, Mr. Rosedale. Mr. Rosedale aspires to great social heights, and having Lily Bart on his arm would be an amazing get for him. He would get his social acceptance – Mrs. Wharton clearly identifies Mr. Rosedale as Jewish nearly any chance she gets, and therefore makes it clear that only WASPs typically succeeded in New York society – and Lily would get her financial stability. Lily hesitates, because he’s Jewish and she doesn’t love him, and in the middle of her hesitancy the Dorsets invite Lily to accompany them on a European tour.

And why does Mrs, Dorset invite Lily, of all people, to Europe? Why to distract her husband while she runs around with another young dude. Lily is completely oblivious to Mrs. Dorset’s goings-on, and is a true friend to Mr. Dorset. Until Mr. Dorset tells Lily that he knows everything, that Bertha’s shtupping whatever the dude’s name was, and he plans on getting a divorce. Lily manages to run into Selden in Monte Carlo and she tells him what she knows, and his heart melts once more and urges her to get out of town immediately. But Lily decides to wait until the morning, but that is one night too late; that very night, Bertha announces to everyone, including Lily, that Lily is not returning to the yacht. And just like that, any social cache Lily had is gone.

Lily returns to New York as her aunt passes away, and the hopes of receiving her legacy are dashed when the will is read and all of her aunt’s inheritance save ten thousand dollars goes to her cousin. Lily is removed from her home, and goes to be a secretary for a new-money up-and-comer. But when the woman’s morals clash with Lily’s own, she leaves her employ and goes to work as a milliner’s apprentice.

That’s Lily’s tragedy – her morals are in complete contradiction to Society’s. At any time, she could have blackmailed Bertha into supporting her through the use of her letters. She could have explained the Gus Trenor situation to Selden – that she thought he had invested her money, not given her a loan with sex as his repayment plan. She could have married Rosedale when he asked her instead of running away to Europe. But in not compromising her morals to Society’s needs, she doomed her own ability to live.

Huh. Apparently, the title comes from a line from the Bible: “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” (Ecc. 7-4). (I said “huh” back there because I’m not a Bible reader.) But the significance of the title now makes a whole lotta sense. Poor Lily Bart is truly a fool, as she struggles to maintain a foothold in Society – the true House of Mirth. And her foolishness and inability to truly become one of the horrible, cold women within that House is her downfall.

Grade for The House of Mirth: 4 stars

Fiction: “Love in the Time of Cholera” by Gabriel García Márquez

Time of CholeraApparently I have a knack for creating things without even thinking about it.  American History Month started in the same way: I looked back at the past couple of years, realized I had started a trend, and then decided to continue that trend because dammit, trends are cool.  Recently, I found another one: In May of 2012, I had read Great Expectations.  Last May, I read The Great Gatsby.  Suddenly, I had apparently made May “Classic Literature Month” at That’s What She Read without even realizing it.

So when this year rolled around, I didn’t really know where I was going to go: I had read Dracula kind of out of sequence (although I guess one could argue that I was getting all Halloween-ey up in here), and lord knows I have tons of classics I could read, but nothing was really jumping out at me – mainly because I couldn’t find any more classic novels with the word “Great” in the title.  I was also knee-deep in books borrowed from the library, and could easily pick up something I didn’t own.

And then Gabriel García Márquez passed away in April.  I felt horrible, because I did not realize he was still alive.  I was brought back to my sophomore year of high school, where the curriculum was supposedly literature from other cultures — I say “supposedly” because it was my first year of Honors-level English, and I seem to remember watching a lot more movies than our counterparts did.  I remember doing a section on fairy tales, I definitely remember having to read Crime and Punishment – who makes a bunch of sixteen-year-olds read that?? -, and we had to read One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Honestly, I was going to re-read that book for this past May’s edition of Classic Literature Month – it seemed appropriate following the death of Márquez, and it has been more than … oh man, so many years I don’t even want to attach a number to it since sophomore year, that re-reading it would really be like reading it for the first time.  I mean, let’s be real: I don’t remember too much about the plot of Hundred Years beyond the fact that all the characters had the same name and the whole thing was rather incesty.

But when I took my copy of A Hundred Years of Solitude out of my classics bookcase (because yes, I have a bookcase dedicated solely to classic literature), I realized that the copy I had picked up at a book sale would deteriorate into dust if I sneezed on it wrong, and the pollen is really bad this time of year.  So I tried to find a copy at the library, but all the copies were checked out.  But his other novel, Love in the Time of Cholera was there, so I checked that out and then took three weeks to read it.

Love in the Time of Cholera tells the story of the love between Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza.  Florentino falls in love with Fermina when they’re both very young.  They carry on a flirtation through surreptitious love letters, until Fermina’s father quasi-politely forbids Fermina to marry Florentino, because Florentino was illegitimate.  Fermina eventually marries Dr. Juvenal Urbino, and they are married for almost fifty years until he dies, at which point Florentino returns into Fermina’s life, where he had been in love with her from afar, and tries to renew her love for him. She holds out at first, claiming that at their age love is indecent.  But Florentino takes up letter-writing again – this time via a typewriter – and their relationship grows from awkward acquaintances into platonic friends, and finally lovers while on a riverboat tour.

I would love to say “That’s it; that’s the plot,” but there’s so much more in the novel – and chances are, I probably won’t be able to elucidate those other things.

What Marquez specialized in was the genre that came to be known as “magic realism” – he discussed the daily details of his characters’ lives, but in a way that it didn’t sound tedious or boring.  Every aspect of their lives – whether it be the initial phases of falling in love, or having to make and eat numerous plates full of eggplant – took on a magical, otherworldly quality, and raised the characters and their actions and reactions to a heightened level of transcendence, if that makes any sense.  [This would be the point where I’d quote an example from the book, but it was a week overdue and I returned it already.]

In this book, Marquez makes numerous comparisons between “love” and “cholera” — that love causes pain, and digestive distress, and hallucinations, and can lead (in some cases) to death, just like cholera.  The character of Dr. Juvenal Urbino, Fermina Daza’s husband, treats such excessive love as a disease – we learn through flashbacks that he is a fastidious germaphobe, so he avoids any contact with a disease (or a disease-like affliction, like love).

There can also be discussions regarding the fact that Florentino Ariza does not remain chaste in his wait for Fermina Daza; his love remains constant, but he has affairs with numerous other women.  Fermina Daza, however, remains married to her husband and never strays from the marital bed.  If I were a scholar, I would discuss this dichotomy; but since I am not a scholar, I will simply say “GENERATIONAL AND CULTURAL AND HISTORICAL ISSUES” and walk away, because after all the Maleficent things I’ve been reading (and/or writing, and/or not even about Maleficent but the whole #YesAllWomen and the second coming of Women’s Rights), I’m exceedingly tired about that type of discussion and feel that I cannot adequately contribute to the discussion through the lens of magical realism literature.

I think my final topic of discussion is this: this book won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  And while it is a stunning treatise on the concept of love, its conditions, its disease-like qualities, and how people interact with it, I don’t understand why it won the Nobel.  Don’t get me wrong, it is an excellent book and I liked it — my feeling right now is that I didn’t understand the quality that garnered the Nobel, or I didn’t have a moment of epiphany that would make this my favorite book forever and ever (and there are a lot of people who claim this as one of their favorites).  I guess it goes back to the fact that I am not a scholar, and I don’t pretend to be one: this blog (and my reviews) are matters of opinion, not fact, and I don’t have the temperament to be a scholar: I get distracted by shiny Internet things too much.

Grade for Love in the Time of Cholera: 4 stars

Non-Fiction: “The Race Underground” by Doug Most

race undergroundFor this year’s selection for American History Month (because yes, I am making that a Thing and no one can stop me), I went beyond the Presidents that I don’t know and Teddy Roosevelt, and went for a moment in history that, to my knowledge, hasn’t been discussed: the inception of the subway system.

Occasionally, I think deep thoughts.  And some of those deep thoughts occur while driving.  For instance, I could be driving to Boston to see my friend Jen (don’t forget to buy her book!), and all of a sudden, I’ll realize that a hundred years ago, the road I’m driving on didn’t exist.  There was no I-95 in 1914.  There were barely cars during that time!  And it’ s not like Boston built its city up, around and over the existing T – those tracks had to be created.  Basically, sometimes the things we take for granted scare me.  But then I listen to the next episode of Welcome to Night Vale and I feel a bit better.

This book was shown in one of my Goodreads newsletters, and luckily, my local library had a copy for me and I was able to read it in time for American History Month.  According to the subtitle, the book is supposed to talk about the rivalry that occurred between Boston and New York with regards to their subways, but while the story was interesting and intriguing, I wouldn’t say it was a rivalry.  I mean, the greatest rivalry between Boston and New York is between the Red Sox and the Yankees.  I’m not even from Boston, and I’m not even a big Red Sox fan, and I grew up with a deeply-ingrained hatred of the Yankees — y’know, when I bother to think about baseball.  If there was a true rivalry between Boston and New York while they were building their subways, I would have expected to have seen some Bostonians down in New York, booing the tunnel diggers and telling them they suck.

What really happened was that, between bureaucracy, red tape, and a monopoly on the cable-car system of the day, New York wasn’t as quick to adapt to the concept of a subway as Boston was.  Therefore, Boston’s subway opened up first (in 1897) and New York’s subway didn’t open until 1904.  That’s it.

The book talks a lot about the different inventors and innovations that occurred leading up to the first American subways.  London had the first Underground system, and in its first inception, was steam powered.  That meant a lot of disgusting air and smoke in the tunnels, which made the rides very uncomfortable.  The American cities wanted to avoid that, so they kept going with their above-ground trollies and cable-cars.  But eventually, between population growth and the width of the streets, traffic jams were horrible (imagine your daily rush hour commute.  Now imagine that with horse poop.  You’re welcome) and something needed to be done.

Two brothers from Brookline, Henry and William Whitney, were instrumental in both Boston and New York in creating the subway systems.  Henry stayed in Boston and was one of the first men to consider a subway as an acceptable alternative (imagine, if you will, Boston full of elevated train lines.  I mean, yes, the Green Line is above-ground from Lechmere to North Station, but imagine that ALL OVER).  William married into the New York scene, and in-between being assistant secretary of the Navy (before Teddy Roosevelt – I just can’t quit him!) worked very hard in the transportation department of New York City, monopolizing cable-cars and eventually, getting the required charter for the team that would actually build the New York subway.

I enjoyed the book – I thought it was very thoroughly-researched, but it wasn’t boring.  Unlike The Story of Ain’t, this author was able to keep the narrative through-line throughout the book; I didn’t feel confused by all the “old white guys” that populate its story.  As someone who rides the T at least once a month (I live in Maine, I’m not a native Bostonian), I love that I’m able to recognize landmarks like the Park Street Station, and Tremont Street, and the Common, and know about Somerville and Brookline – all of those words mean something to me.  I can also appreciate how god-awful old the Green Line actually is, which is why I hate riding it.  (And now Government Center is closed for two years.  Because yes, it needs an update, but two years?!  That’s crazy!)

I do not have any familiarity with the New York Metro, however.  It is on my list of Places to Go, but as of yet, I have not gotten any closer to New York City than driving I-95 through it at 5:30 in the morning coming back from Florida two years ago.

If you’re from Boston or New York, or are just interested in the engineering behind building a subway system, then you’d probably like this book.  If you don’t fit any of those qualities … you probably won’t read it.  And that’s okay, too.

And before I go, here’s the true difference between New York and Boston:


Grade for The Race Underground3 stars

Non-fiction: “Island of Vice” by Richard Zacks

island of viceHoly crap, I spent entirely too long on this book.

First, the setup. See, I had just finished Nerve and as I was wondering what I was going to pick up next, I remembered a throwaway statement I made last year when I reviewed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. I had commented in that review that since the April before that (2011), I had read The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, and now I found myself reviewing another book about a different US President (with some fictional vampires thrown in), that it appeared that April had turned into American History Month here at That’s What She Read.

Flash-forward to me in April 2013, remembering that throwaway statement. Then cut to me completely taking that throwaway statement and running away with it. Because for about a week, I was popping in and out of Bull Moose and (shudder) Books-A-Million, looking for a book about American History that I could read and review, because if I sarcastically say something one year out of the corner of my mouth, apparently it becomes incontrovertible fact the next?

I picked up a few books at both places, and when I got home, I realized that there was no way I could spin the complete history of MI-6 as American History. I mean, I can spin some shit, but let’s get real. So after Round 2 of shopping, I did finally pick up this book for two reasons: 1) It went into depth of Teddy Roosevelt’s time as Police Commissioner for New York City, and I like Teddy Roosevelt, and 2) it was called Island of Vice. That sounded awesome! I love vice! It’s my second-favorite sin.

(Wait … vice isn’t … y’know? Don’t correct me. It’s fine.)

And don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I didn’t like the book; I did. It had its moments. I think my biggest complaint about the book is that for something entitled Island of Vice, it really should have been called something like Boardroom of Bureaucracy instead. There was entirely too little vice and too much paperwork and interpersonal problems that involve wording around laws for something with this title.

The book details the fight between the laws governing New York City (then, just Manhattan) and the saloon-owners and brothels of the island. See, saloons and whorehouses brought in tons of money. Problem was, they were illegal. Well, saloons were legal, they just had to be closed on Sunday. Except the saloon-owners said ‘fuck that shit’ and served alcohol to everyone on Sundays, same as the rest of the week. A reverend, Dr. Parkhurst, got sick of all the drunkenness, the prostitution, and the corruption of the NYPD that allowed these institutions to function – as long as the kickbacks and protection money kept flowing into the cops’ hands, of course. So the reform Republicans created a Commissioner’s Board, which was supposedly bipartisan, and it included Teddy Roosevelt.

Roosevelt focused on upholding the letter of the law, and wanted all policemen to do the same. Whether he believed that saloons should be shut down on Sunday or not, it was his duty as commissioner to ensure that the law was upheld. He and I agree on this one issue: if you don’t like a law, you enact to change the law. But you can’t break the law just because you think it’s stupid.*

*Except speeding. But this was written before automobiles, so. Also, I operate under Aladdin’s Law: You’re only in trouble if you get caught.

In the end, due to the pressure put on him by New Yorkers who just wanted to get their drink on, Roosevelt ponies up to President McKinley and manages to get out of the failing Commissioner’s Board position and into the Assistant Secretary to the Navy position, wherein he nearly single-handedly gets the Spanish-American War started. New York goes back to its vice-ey ways, and not even Prohibition can stop them.

Hm. So this review feels a bit disjointed; probably because it’s taken me five days to write it. In the time since I finished this book and today, I have read the entirety of The Great Gatsby. I just … I feel confused about the book. I liked it, and yet I didn’t like it?

Here’s my problem with the book: I wanted there to be more vice. The book starts off with Rev. Parkhurst’s tour of New York’s prostitution houses, and saloons, and other places. And it was HILARIOUS to me to see how offended he was! Now, granted, I am not exactly a God-fearing Christian woman. And society is much different today than it was over a hundred years ago. But being able to look at history from today’s perspective can sometimes be hilarious.

FOR INSTANCE: Here’s a menu of what could have been offered in a brothel back then: [UH MOM DON’T READ THIS NEXT PART]

– “Common old fashioned fuck” [man on top]: $1
– “Rear fashion”: $1.50
– “Back scuttle fashion” [anal]: $1.75
– “French fashion with use of patent balls” [elaborate oral]: $3.50
– “All night, with use of towel and rose water”: $5 [[p. 285]]

SEE? Inflation ALONE makes that funny!

I wanted more of that! Funny stories where vice was happening! I don’t care about paperwork! If I wanted to read about paperwork, I’d read a book about business! *sigh* But it was also about Teddy Roosevelt, and I love Teddy Roosevelt! See? All conflicted.

If you’re a die-hard TR fan, then go ahead and read the book. It is interesting; I just wanted more sexy escapades. THAT DIDN’T DIRECTLY INVOLVE ROOSEVELT, I feel that needs to be EMPHATICALLY CLEAR.

Grade for Island of Vice: 2 stars

Fiction: “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” by Seth Grahame-Smith

I think it’s been pretty well established at this point that I am not a historian. As much as I’d love to have a business card that proclaims me to be a “Master of the Occult and Obtainer of Rare Antiquities,” what I don’t know about history — both American and non — would fill about a frillion books. So while it was — oh wow, coincidence — this time last year that I spent the entire month of April reading about the first third of Theodore Roosevelt’s life, apparently April became American History Month over here at That’s What She Read, because this month I read Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.Now, as you can tell by the title, it’s not exactly actual history. After all, while it would be freaking amazing for our sixteenth president to have been a vampire hunter — and Mr. Grahame-Smith does make a convincing argument for it — it probably didn’t actually happen. Probably.

So anyway. I was proud of myself — I didn’t look up anything about Lincoln on Wikipedia until after I finished reading the book. And I was pleasantly surprised at how many events in Lincoln’s real life could be explained (and, in some cases, better explained) by events in Vampire Hunter. For instance, Lincoln’s mother died when he was nine of something called “milk sickness.” In the book, however, “milk sickness” is merely a synonym for “drained by a vampire.” Lincoln learns from his father everything about vampires and the chaos that vampires have brought to his family. Lincoln’s grandfather was killed by vampires and his father observed the death; Lincoln’s father borrowed money from someone that turned out to be a vampire, and when he couldn’t pay the guy back, the vampire killed Lincoln’s mother as repayment. At that moment, Lincoln vows to devote his life to killing vampires.

He meets Henry Sturges, who is a very old vampire. But Henry is … well, he’s like … Angel, I guess? If Angel was fully devoted to ridding the world of evil vampires and less devoted to a perky blonde vampire slayer who’s too young to realize when she’s in love with the wrong person. Anyway, Henry sends Lincoln names of vampires that he wants exterminated, and Abe does his bidding.

What I found both interesting, appropriate, and trite was that the Civil War (and therefore, slavery) was fought over vampirism. According to this worldview, slave owners were typically vampires, and they would buy up poor, unhealthy slaves along with stronger slaves and use the latter in the fields and feast on the former. As time marches further along towards 1861, Lincoln learns that the vampires of the South want to enslave the human race, much like the human race enslaved … well, slaves. He and Henry get a Union together to fight the South, and thus, the Civil War is born.

Much like Titanic, you know what’s going to happen at the end of the story. And you can probably guess what Mr. Grahame-Smith does with John Wilkes Booth, so I’m not going to go into that here. I will say that while the climax is expected, the denoument was not, and pleasantly surprising at that.

Now, I loved Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but I think the main reason why I loved PPZ was because I had read Pride and Prejudice a couple of times and always put it back on the shelf in a wistful manner; I always felt something was missing. And PPZ made me realize what was missing: zombies. Pride and Prejudice always needed zombies, and Seth Grahame-Smith gave me Pride and Prejudice and Zombies! It was perfect! And while I really enjoyed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, I guess I didn’t have a need for Abraham Lincoln to be a vampire hunter, and that’s why I didn’t love it as much as PPZ.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the idea that Abraham Lincoln could have been a vampire hunter. But I didn’t open the book — or finish it, for that matter — thinking Yes; this is what Abraham Lincoln needed.

Grade for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter: 3 stars